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Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To Joe D'Angelo and Re: "LL Cool J, Chuck D Take Opposing Sides At File-Sharing Hearing"

Your concise article, "LL Cool J, Chuck D Take Opposing Sides At File-Sharing Hearing" deals with a subject that we will address, from various angles, at Black Electorate Economics University (BEEU), in our Business Semester which just began lessons. You can still enroll.

I really am intrigued by the juxtaposition of the file-sharing controversy with the thinking of Black Hip-Hop artists and its bearing on Black businesses and the Black economy, as a whole. We at are certainly in the minority when it comes to this interest.

What strikes me the most in the file-sharing technology debate is how Black Hip-Hop artists and even executives have not been able to publicly think and speak of the issue in terms of the genesis of Hip-Hop, as a cultural art form, nor in terms of the economic implications it has and will have on the communities and people that gave birth to Hip-Hop and their careers.

In L.L. Cool J., in my view, on this issue, you have a typical Black professional who begins as an entrepreneur and ends up - unintentionally - as a spokesperson - advocating the interests of the industry that took a risk and invested in and purchased his immense talents at a financial discount. He has ascended to the bottom half of the industry's establishment through his personal success; and has become desensitized or maybe confused over how his popularity and influence with those at the bottom of the capital pyramid can produce greater wealth for them and himself. This may seem like a harsh criticism of him, if considered out of context. To be sure, L.L. Cool J., in a very personal and professional way has enriched the Black and Hip-Hop community by his modeling of a clean or positive image (comparatively speaking) and through his charity work and concern for children. But in terms of affecting change in the music industry that benefits these same communities and individuals, his thinking is not as positive, and appears to be as "establishment" as possible. An excerpt in your article displays his mindset:

LL used a rather bizarre metaphor to render the practice of illegal file-sharing down to its basic element: stealing. "If a contractor builds a building, should people be allowed to move into it for free, just because he's successful?" asked Mr. Cool J, as he was addressed at the hearing. "Should they be able to live in this building for free? That's how I feel when I create an album or when I make a film and it's shooting around the planet for free."

My, how things change. This is the same LL Cool J. who utilized "samples" of the creative works of others (especially in the earlier years of his career) in his music, in a manner that could easily be seen as copyright infringement. But again, he is speaking nearly 20 years after his career began. He is not only Bigger and Deffer but Older and Richer (smile).

I certainly think that copyrights and patents have had a positive effect on creativity. I also believe in customs, laws, and standards and see their value in providing stability, justice, and order in society. In that sense I certainly agree that we should all be concerned with LL Cool J.'s analogy as it relates to the "rule of law". But where do laws come from? Either God or Man (males and females). In that sense one cannot only think in static-equilibrium terms, as culture and civil society are a major part in the making and replacing of laws. If LL Cool J. were around, as a politician or lawyer with the mindset he has now, 20 years ago, there might not be an LL Cool J. - rapper/actor/author today. The power of youth culture and technological innovation is revealing flaws in the music industry's business model as well as hinting at inefficiencies in copyright law. LL Cool J. should be able to recognize this and balance and refine his establishment position.

In Chuck D. (I have met Chuck a few times and have found him to be one of the most sincere and down-to-earth people you will ever encounter), in my view, you have an entrepreneur and brilliant revolutionary ideologue who has the right idea but not the support of an indigenous network of politicians, business leaders and artists to properly advance it. As a result, an elite group of progressives, outside of the Black community, stands to benefit immediately from Chuck's advocacy for peer-to-peer (P2P) technology and its widespread use, unfettered. Chuck's thesis is revolutionary, but it is not applicable right now in the Black community largely because of the digital divide (as consumers and producers), and the disunity of Black Hip-Hop artists. Unfortunately, Chuck is ahead of his time and has to virtually "pick" between "suffering" and building an indigenous network, or defending the purity of an idea that is the basis of the potential revolution. P2P is a powerful concept and reality with implicactions well beyond the music industry . It embraces the networking capabilities of the Internet, allows people to share and publish resources directly, and allows the unused processing capability of computers to be shared productively. P2P makes every person with a computer a potential consumer and publisher of information. It makes the individual a distributor. That is the major reason why the music industry is so frightened by it. But with standards varying so widely in the P2P technology and with Blacks at the bottom of the technological pyramid, with no, or old, slow, and "out-dated" equipment, they will miss out on much of the revolution, even if the music industry and Black Hip-Hop artists, as publishers, were to unite and put out more of their music online, at cheaper prices. As a result, Chuck's efforts, at best, really only buy time in the long-term, and in the short-term they only significantly help the P2P establishment - heads of the P2P networks Limewire, Grokster, Blubster, Bearshare, Morpheus and eDonkey 2000 - who, as you note, are now forming a lobby group to place the interests of file-sharers (and their own) before Congress.


What needs to happen is that Hip-Hop artists and leaders like LL Cool J. and Chuck D. should work together to see how P2P technology; the unity of artists; the ideas and infrastructure of Black technological experts and entrepreneurs; and the indigenous Black economy can be weaved together in a "legal" wealth-creating network. This would require artist creativity, unity, cultural customs becoming law (politics), and business savvy.

Interestingly, there have been two major developments this month that show how the music industry, though continuing to suffer, is entering the final stages of its "absorbing the revolution" of P2P and file sharing. Yesterday, Roxio Inc. announced that it will launch a new pay version of Napster on October 29 that will charge 99 cents a track and be available on the Windows operating service. They will begin with a catalog of 500,000 songs. In the other development, in April of this year, Apple launched its iTunes Music Store and has seen its stock price shoot upward from a 52-week low of $13 to more than $20 a share. But the store was only available to the 3% out there who use Apple Macintosh computers. But next week, it was announced, Apple is going to broaden its Macintosh-only compatible service to the 90% of us who use computers that run the Microsoft's Windows operating system. Apple, too, will charge 99 cents per song . Apple only earns a 10% profit on its sales, having to pay a licensing fee to the record labels and credit card fees. But so far, Apple customers have bought 10 million tracks, about 500,000 a week, and generated $25 million in annual revenue. With the Windows market, Apple's store could bring in as much as $600 million in revenue, according to Wall St. analysts. But because the profit margins are so low, Apple is using the sale of downloaded music to funnel people into buying its much more profitable iPod music player, which costs $300 dollars or more and stores and plays digital music. Apple believes that increased sales of downloaded music will lead to increased iPod sales which will lead to increased sales of Apple laptops and personal computers. See how it all works?

At the same time that this is happening, chain retailers are using CDs as loss leaders to bring music customers into their stores to buy other products. So Best Buy wants you to come in and buy Beyonce's album for $9.99 the first week of its release so that you bump into a VCR or Playstation or DVD player or stereo system that you like, which costs much more. When the music industry actually lowers retail prices on CDs (like Universal Records just did), they are supporting this loss leader approach, and making it difficult, if not impossible for Independent and Black-owned retailers, who are responsible for Hip-Hop's commercial start and significant portions (some estimate 30%) of its sales today, from earning a profit. So these "mom-and-pop" stores go under and the music chain retailers take their market share. More people leave the cities and small towns where the mom-and-pops were to buy music while shopping at the suburban malls.

In the case of both Apple and Best Buy, music (downloaded and CDs) is being sold at a slight loss, cost, or slight profit as a way to market other more expensive products with higher profit margins. The revolution is being absorbed. And in a way that hurts the indigenous Black economy which does not include chain stores, Apple Computers, or major firms that own P2P technology. All of this, while Black Hip-Hop artists will continue to earn less - whether their music is downloaded for a fee or sold at a store. Neither Chuck or LL's plans or arguments would stop this effect or change this reality.

Instead of taking the sides of the establishment record labels or the establishment P2P networks; Chuck and LL should get together and discuss, even argue the issue among themselves, with a top-down and bottom-up perspective that includes the Black economy that gave birth to them and launched their careers.


Cedric Muhammad

P.S. To Enroll In Black Electorate Economics University please visit:

Friday, October 10, 2003

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